Western Civilization From Prehistory to the Renaissance Term Paper

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Western Civilization

From Prehistory to the Renaissance

Early Civilizations

What do historians mean by "pre-history?" What was life like for early humans during these years?

There are many things that we as citizens of the modern world take for granted. First among these is probably the enormous amount of recorded information that we have at our fingertips. Everything from our purchases, to our places of employment, to the times and places of our births and deaths are stored either on paper or on computer. And there is much more too - countless novels, and films, and compact discs preserve, each in its own way, a bit of our thoughts and dreams, our expectations and aspirations. But there was once a time when this was not so; a time in the remote past before human beings had any way of recording events and thoughts and memories for future generations or even for sharing among their own contemporaries. This was the time before history, for history is the sum total of the recorded experience of humankind, the experiences that he himself purposely set down and saved up.

For the untold ages before the dawn of recorded history, we have only the work of archeologists and paleontologists to tell us of the life of our ancestors. It was a way of life very different from our own, a way of life preserved in objects buried in the earth, silent mementoes that speak only in the language of the interpretations that we make of them. The remains of tools and weapons, pottery shards, dried out ears of grain, pieces of plants and bits of meat mixed up among the ashes of long-cold campfires - these are but a few of the relics that remain of early man. Taken together, they create a picture of a society that moved to rhythms at once unfamiliar and familiar. Bushmen and pygmies, native tribesmen in the heart of the Amazon, and other still-living peoples in the remote corners of the world still follow the way of life of prehistoric man. It was a way of life that revolved around hunting and gathering. Early humans moved from place following the movements of the animals they ate. Men hunted, and women gathered plants and looked after the children. Nothing existed that could not be found in nature, or made from something found in nature. Our distant ancestors' only technology consisted of fire, and their own hands and minds. Men chipped spear and arrowheads from stone and bone. Their women sewed animal skins, or wove together strip of bark and grass to make clothes for the band. It was a simple existence. A life of hunting and gathering provided only enough food for very small groups of people to live together. The near constant movement made building permanent homes, and creating complex equipment impractical and unnecessary.

However, as time went by, some people did find a way to make their lives more secure. Some nameless human being in what is now Iraq discovered that he could take the seed of a plant and place it in the ground and cause it to grow where he wanted it to grow. Whole fields of grain could be cultivated in one place, and because of this constant food supply, people could settle down together in one spot. Even better, some people found that instead of following animals, there were certain animals that could be made to follow you. These became the first domesticated animals, and in a short time, these animals provided our ancestors with meat, milk, and even wool. And once the band's residence had become permanent, and the people were guaranteed of a steady food supply, enterprising individuals discovered that they had a lot more time on their hands to tend to the tasks of daily life and to explore the world around them. Hastily constructed temporary shelters gave way to sturdy huts. Tools and weapons became more elaborate as people had more time to devote to their construction and development. Natural resources were put to new and ingenious uses. Lumps of clay were molded into shapes and allowed to dry in the heat of the sun or the fire, and so our forbears produced the first pottery. Some rocks were softer than other rocks and could be beaten into shape or heated to high temperatures to make them more malleable. And so, thousands of years ago human beings began to make implements out of metal.

Permanent villages, a ready food supply, and better tools meant many more things as well. People congregated together into larger and larger groups. More people meant more hands to do the work. Improved technologies freed up some of these villagers to do things other than the work necessary for their own physical survival. While others worked the fields, and tended the animals, they began to specialize in particular crafts. One became a full-time potter, another a blacksmith, and still another a maker of small boats or fishing equipment. Such specialists made goods not only for themselves, but also for their fellow villagers. They exchanged their pots or boats for basketfuls of grain, or for sheep, or joints of meat. A specialization of production was developing, and along with it an economy based upon mutual exchange of goods and services. As many of the materials required by the new crafts and technologies could not be found everywhere, villages began to trade with one another. A village that was located near plentiful supplies of copper exchanged its goods with a village downriver that had a good supply of clay or lapis lazuli, or possibly even gold and silver. For as human society grew more complex, there were goods and services that began to be produced that had little to do with the physical necessities of survival. Neolithic man, as a group, had at last freed himself from the need to worry about his daily survival. Human beings could turn their mind to other things.

The use of luxury goods like ivory and gold was symbolic of a much more significant development. The growing specialization among workers meant that certain objects were now produced for other than utilitarian purposes. Figurines and even clothing and weapons might have a social or religious purpose that had little connection to the physical needs of the village. More people and greater diversification meant that in order for the village to run smoothly there had to be some sort of organization. Soon, just as particular individuals worked at particular jobs, a handful of individuals came to devote the bulk of their time to organizing things. They apportioned the village's fields, or watched over the irrigation ditches. They made sure that the goods that were produced were made to the appropriate standards. These people soon formed a class by themselves, a class that was raised above that of the other villagers. As people of exalted rank, they became the consumers of the new luxury goods. And as their freedom from physical labor allowed them to cultivate their minds, they created a demand for more and more unusual productions. Everyday objects became aesthetic creations, and so art was born. Furthermore, these high-ranking people were able to devote greater and greater amounts of time to all of the organizational aspects of human existence. The gods who watched over the fields and the flocks, and who, in the already long-forgotten prehistoric past, had taught the craftsmen their crafts became their special province. Religion itself became a specialty, a realm of abstruse knowledge that required the attention of experts. Priests performed rituals and sacrificed to the gods that life might continue as it was meant to, that all the things that had become essential to human existence might be preserved and perpetuated. So much information was now needed to ensure the proper running of the world that people could no longer remember it all. They needed a way to record it. Thus, stood man on the threshold of civilization and history.

Section Two: The World of the Greeks

Question # 5:

Why is Alexander remembered by historians as "The Great?" Did his achievements go beyond the mere acquisition of a vast empire? List and explain the many different kinds of benefits that resulted from his conquests. Do you agree that he should be called "great?" Has doing this assignment helped you to understand how historians evaluate and interpret famous individuals in history? How? Be specific.

Greatness comes in many forms. Yet throughout most of history, the greatness of kings

Was measured in terms of their conquests and military prowess. It was for this reason that, down through the ages, Alexander of Macedon was accorded the title of "Great." To be the great victor in war, and to add to the territories that he had inherited was the ambition of most every monarch from the days of the pharaohs down nearly unto our own time. As recently as the early years of the Twentieth Century, power and success were still…[continue]

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